Live from Yaounde: “We are all links in a chain”

Editor’s Note: Tessa writes from the IRCT’s Sub-Saharan Africa Regional Seminar taking place in Yaounde, Cameroon.

As we’ve mentioned before, work in nongovernmental organisations (NGO – another acronym we use with ease within this little world) can use a particular language and methods that don’t really reflect to the outside world their true meaning and impact. We speak of meetings and projects with an air of great importance, but often struggle to explain why? Why is a meeting, of all things, so important and why do we focus so much on them?

This has been one of the goals of this blog – to shed some light underneath the veil of NGO-ese and the NGO methods to explain clearly, what is the impact of our work.

One the IRCT’s projects, Non-State Actors (NSA) is one such project riddled with this problem of communicating why meetings are so important.

I am writing right now from one of these meetings. I’m in Cameroon at the Sub-Saharan Africa Regional Seminar, co-hosted by the IRCT and our member Trauma Centre Cameroon (TCC). This is my first time to attend one of these meetings, and I firstly feel so privileged to be here and meet so many people within the torture rehabilitation movement; but I also feel like I’m only now beginning to understand the impact of these seminars and meetings.

This seminar has brought together 31 representatives – psychologists, counsellors, directors of centres, and social workers – from torture rehabilitation centres from all over sub-Saharan Africa. There are people here from Chad, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and of course, our gracious hosts and ridiculously hard-working staff of TCC, among others.

The title of this five-day seminar is “Learning from each other.” Our goal in being here is to do just that – learn from each other’s respective experiences in rehabilitating torture survivors, gaining access to justice and preventing torture from happening in the first place.

But our first task was simply to make sure we were all OK. Working for a world without torture in sub-Saharan Africa can be a phenomenally difficult task, as one can imagine from the media. Torture here is undeniably prevalent, whether during military uprisings, former dictatorships, ongoing torture from police officers, or in post-conflict settings. And working for the rehabilitation of torture survivors can be both personally taxing for the individual and intimidating, as we have seen from the threats to human rights defenders around the world.

So, in bringing these 31 individuals together, we tried to address these issues. Presenters from various centres explained their strategies for safety as human rights defenders. Fidelis Mudimu, from Counselling Services Unit (CSU) in Zimbabwe, was among three staff members arbitrarily arrested and detained. He spoke about strategies to assess risks. For example, the greater impact of a centre’s work – bringing forth more perpetrators to account for their crimes, documenting that torture has taken place, empowering victims through rehabilitation – can of course increase the risks that human rights defenders face because they challenge the impunity of perpetrators. Knowing the impact of one’s work can keep that defender aware of when they might provoke a threat.

Taiga Wanyanja, coordinator of Mateso – Mwatikho Torture Survivors Organization in Kenya, spoke about ways in which human rights defenders can mitigate against risks. Keep abreast of not only the context in which one is working, but how it changes. Is there political unrest or upcoming elections, such as the situation in Kenya in 2008 that resulted in many incidents of torture? Make sure the office itself is safe – in a well-lit area and not isolated and easily attacked.

But human rights defenders need to be mentally safe in addition to physically safe. When working in the fight against torture, it is both understandable and a considerable risk that human rights defenders may become traumatised, burned-out or facing other mental health challenges because of the nature of their work. Secondary trauma – trauma that comes from hearing and witnessing the stories of torture and violence all day, everyday – is a problem among those in human rights work, perhaps particularly in anti-torture organisations.

So, back to meetings. What is the purposing of bringing forth all these people from all over the continent to learn these things? Because, as Fidelis said, “We are a chain. And we are only as strong as our weakest link.” It is critically important for the safety – both physical and mental safety – that everyone learns from each other. This is learning from both successes and failures, knowing what works and what doesn’t, in fighting torture within each country, context and community.

Tessa MollTessa is Communications Officer at the IRCT. The regional meeting, part of the NSA project, was funded by the European Commission.

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